Musicianship Development: Reading Musical Notation

As we finalize our plans for worship this weekend, let’s take a few moments and think about our personal development as musicians.  It is crucial that we constantly become more adept in our craft in order to effective lead, challenge, and direct other musicians.  If I had to name the one skill that is most essential for a music minister, I would say it is the ability to read musical notation.

I’m not sure if this is a Southern issue or something that is most common in evangelical circles, but I encounter many music directors who cannot read music at all.  To me, this is a drastic oversight!  Would one ever contemplate discussing literature if they did not possess the ability to read?  Would you hire a sound technician who couldn’t hear?  I definitely won’t allow a mechanic to work on my car that wants to attach the thing-a-ma-gig to the hose that looks like a pig’s tail!  The inability to speak intelligently (and clearly) about our music does not inspire confidence.  It hampers our abilities to run rehearsals effectively and efficiently.  It suggests that we simply don’t respect the language of the music.

I am not talking about being able to play an instrument proficiently at this point. (I do think this is a valid expectation for a music minister, but I’ll get to that in a later post.)  At this point, I am talking about simply looking at a musical staff and knowing that a C moves up to an A in the alto line.   This skill allows us to instruct our team immediately of the SPECIFIC point of their difficulty in learning a score rather than having to sing the correct pitches for them.  Have you ever tried to “sing” a part to a guitarist?  It simply does not work.

Understanding musical notation also allows us to move our ministry to the next level of excellence.  Ultimately, the skill will allow you to notate the arrangements you create for your team and communicate with them effectively.  As our skills increase, we pass that knowledge on to those we serve, challenging them to serve the Lord with excellence in all they do.

Now that I recognize the need to read music, what steps do I take to obtain the skill?  There are actually several options available to you. The first option would be to enroll in private lessons.  I immediately suggest studying piano or voice; if you choose to study guitar, make sure from the beginning that the instruction will include reading both notation and chord charts.

A similar solution that will give you the skills quickly without the practical application is to take a course in music theory or basic musicianship.  Many community colleges offer these courses at a reasonable rate and you benefit from the support of being among other students with a similar skill level.  If a formal course is not available, speak with the piano teacher in your area.  He will have the ability to teach what you are looking for and will generally be glad to teach you the material at a fairly reasonable price.  Some teachers may also entertain the idea of teaching a group class at your church.  For a nominal fee, you can train everyone on your team (including yourself) at the same time.  You would provide the space; the teacher provides the knowledge.  The cost can either be covered by the music budget (a worthy investment for your team) or it can be split among the class participants.  If individuals are contributing, you might consider inviting members of neighboring church teams to join you.  Now you’re fulfilling a musical need for your team while developing relationships with other musicians!  Get creative and see how this solution might work for you.

Finally, there are numerous websites that teach the essentials of music theory.  Many of these sites offer their services for free.  I suggest using these as your last resort.  While the benefits include the price and the convenience of fitting study into your schedule, remember that you get what you pay for!  Rarely is there interaction with a professional to correct any misperceptions and to formulate a plan of study that best fits your needs.

Whatever solution fits your situation best at this point, the challenge is clear:  take the iniative and improve your skills in communicating with your team and other musicians!  One place to start is in learning how to read music.

Let me know as you accept the challenge to develop your skills.  If I can be of help in any way – providing referrals for a teacher in your area or answering questions myself via the Internet – please contact me.  I look forward to hearing your success stories as you accept the challenge to take your musical skills to the next level.

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